Is Breastfeeding Really Free? These Hidden Costs May Surprise You

A mother breastfeeds her newborn baby at home.
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When you made the decision to breastfeed, it probably came with careful consideration. For my family and me, saving money and the health of my baby were two really important issues.

What I didn’t know as a new mother was that breastfeeding wasn’t free. Everywhere I turned, it was touted as the free alternative to formula feeding. With breastfeeding supplies and support factoring in, the truth is actually somewhere in the middle.

Save at the Pump

The breast pump is going to be the biggest expense that you will potentially face when breastfeeding, with a hand pump costing about $25 (they can go up to $1,000, but the average price is $250 to $300).

But, here’s a news flash: not everyone needs a breast pump.

Returning to work is the biggest reason you might consider a breast pump. While this might be a great tool for you, there is an alternative to an electric breast pump.

One example is hand expression. Hand expression uses your hands and a breast milk collection container. This is ideal for people who don’t need to pump often or who are really good at hand expression. You won’t know until you try this one. The other example would be a hand powered pump versus an electric pump. This pump is great for people who will not be using it on a daily basis or need to pump quickly.  Most people prefer the electric plug in model to the hand pump, or even a battery powered pump.

If you do need or simply want a breast pump, you will want to first check with your health insurance provider. Many health insurance plans have a provision where simply being pregnant means that you are eligible for a breast pump.

That said, not all breast pumps are created equally and the law is written in a way that does not specify a particular pump. You might get a single hand pump or a double electric pump. To save time, which equals money, you will most likely want a double electric pump.

Part of the procedure to get a breast pump usually involves a prescription from your doctor or midwife. Simply ask them to specify a double electric pump on that prescription. This is not a guarantee but will be helpful in obtaining the best pump.

Buy Breast Milk Storage in Bulk

Storing the breast milk that you pump does not need to be complicated, but it should not be an afterthought. There are plenty of ways to store breast milk in your refrigerator or freezer. You probably will find that special breast milk storage bags work well for you. This is particularly true if you will be storing a lot of milk.

These are not cheap, and they are disposable. However, buying in bulk is a great way for you to save money. Lansinoh and NUK manufacture quality bags in bulk. They sell at Target for around $10 to $11 for 100 bags. You will not save money buying generic food storage bags that frequently leak.

The alternative is going to a sturdy container, like a glass or plastic bottle. These take up a lot of room and are not ideal if you have a lot of milk to freeze or store and don’t have a separate freezer in addition to your regular food storage.

You May Already Have Access to Lactation Support

Another thing you will want to consider putting a few dollars towards is a lactation consultant. Don’t be tempted to get free information off the Internet when you have big problems. A quick, early intervention can save your breastfeeding relationship.

Before you pay out of pocket, be sure to see if you can use the lactation services at the hospital where you had your baby. If that doesn’t work, check with your pediatrician. Many offices now employ a lactation consultant to help you.

You may also be able to use your flexible spending or health care savings on the services of a lactation consultant.

If none of those is an option, there are also some Women, Infant and Children’s (WIC) offices that have lactation support. This is often given via peer counselors with the supervision of a lactation consultant.

Invest in Key Nursing Clothes

Nursing bras and clothes that are meant for breastfeeding can be very helpful. Even just a few shirts and a handful of bras will make breastfeeding easier and more comfortable for you and your baby.

Select a few key pieces that will help you get your nursing wardrobe started. Then you can add only what you need to your collection as time goes on.

Nursing Bras

I recommend owning at least two bras that have breastfeeding access built in. You may also want to purchase nursing bras that work double duty — they have a built-in flap to make them a hands-free pumping bra.

Being able to pump and continue eating, working, or just messing with your phone is a huge help. There are also bustiers that you can purchase to help you with hands-free pumping.

Nursing Camisoles and Dresses

The next item on my wish list would be breastfeeding camisoles. These tops are worn under any article of clothing to allow you to keep your belly covered while pumping or breastfeeding. When breastfeeding is easy and comfortable, you’re more likely to make it work.

Target, Old Navy and Walmart sell breastfeeding camisoles for just $15 to $20. If you spend $20 to $25 you can get one from Undercover Mama. The main difference to look out for is how they open — some snap open from the top and others have hidden flaps.

You may also want to add one dress to the mix. Certainly, many women wind up wearing skirts and shirts for a very long time. But the first splurge I make is always a nice dress with breastfeeding/pumping access. These tend to be a bit pricy unless you can find one at a secondhand maternity store or a yard sale.

Remember that breastfeeding might not be free, but the little bit of money that you do spend is saved in other ways.

For example, a 2016 study showed that mothers breastfeeding for a full year spent fewer dollars on health care — in co-pays and lost work. While you should have some funds available to help make breastfeeding easier, it still winds up being a huge cost savings over purchasing formula.

Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, CLC, is a mother of many and lactation counselor. She spends her time between driving the kids around and teaching others to help new mothers.